Autism is a condition that has been diagnosed at an increasing rate in recent year, but that remains relatively mysterious in a lot of ways. While there are many different initiatives examining the differences in the development of the brain in children with autism as compared to neurotypical children, these studies haven’t yet been able to pinpoint why a child will develop autism, or create some kind of plan that would reverse the effects of the condition.
While autism research is still a developing field, researchers do know that the earlier treatment begins, the better able to adapt a child will be in the long-term. An ongoing study from Holland Bloorview Kids Rehabilitation Hospital in Toronto is taking this principle to heart and working to develop an early intervention program for children with autism and their caregivers.
Importance of early intervention
The severity of autism can vary widely from case to case. Autism Spectrum Disorder or ASD, encompasses a wide range of developmental differences and symptoms. On the milder end of the spectrum individuals may have symptoms that are difficult to notice at first glance; on the other hand, individuals with more severe forms of the condition may not be verbal or able to maintain eye contact.
Regardless of where an individual falls on the spectrum, caregivers can help an individual adapt to his or her symptoms and learn to cope with them in a world that assumes a certain, defined set of abilities and processes. Because development happens so rapidly in the early years of a child’s life, the earlier these coping skills are taught the more ingrained they will be in a child’s processing and the greater positive affect they will have on that child throughout his or her life.
In the past, autism was typically diagnosed based on behavioral symptoms that are not easily identified until a child is well into his or her elementary years. But with new developments in technology and an increasing amount of information about how the condition presents in individuals, children can now be diagnosed at a much younger age. The team at Holland Bloorview is working to develop a program that helps parents and caregivers begin teaching these important coping skills to children as young as age two.
One of the participants in the program, Alex Munro, has been receiving the benefits of the work from the Holland Bloorview team since he was diagnosed with autism at age two. His mother and primary caregiver, Jenna Potenza, is just as much a part of the program as her son is. The care providers at Holland Bloorview are developing an early intervention program that they call the Social ABCs. The program teaches parents and caregivers methods and strategies for teaching children with autism how to interact with their caregivers in more meaningful ways through both verbal and nonverbal communication.
To start off, the program teaches caregivers to identify something that is really appealing to the child. In Alex’s case it was sweets, especially cookies and ice cream. When Jenna was first being trained in the Social ABCs, Kate Bernardi, one of the research coordinators at Holland Bloorview would give cookies to Jenna in front of Alex. At first the goal was just to get Alex to recognize that his mother had the cookies. Then, Jenna would hold the cookies and try to teach Alex how to say the word ‘cookie.’ Once Alex communicated with Jenna, not always through uttering a full word right away but either through some words or some nonverbal communication such as eye contact, then she would give Alex the cookie. While the process was slow going at first, as Jenna and Alex continued to work at developing his communication skills he moved into using full words and then eventually full sentences.
The program at Holland Bloorview is helping parents and caregivers with children across the spectrum use these methods to help teach communication. Essentially, by using a concept the child already understands – in Alex’s case the concept he knew was that he liked cookies – caregivers can then lead the children into new concepts that they weren’t previously familiar with, like using verbal communication. While it can be a difficult process and while it doesn’t have the same results with each child, the program has been quite successful so far and the team at Holland Bloorview is excited to continue its implementation.
The benefits of early intervention like the Social ABCs at Holland Bloorview are multifaceted. On one hand the program has been able to demonstrate again the importance and effectiveness of early intervention when it comes to teaching children with autism coping strategies. Alex and Jenna were sample subjects in a study recently published by Holland Bloorview that was designed to quantify the effectiveness of the program. The study looked at a sample of 62 children with ASD ages 12-30 months.
Half of the children in the study were enrolled in the Social ABCs right away, but the other half did not begin the program until 6 months later. The researchers then compared the progress that the two groups made to determine how effective the Social ABCs were as an early intervention program. The results revealed that babies in the program spent significantly more time engaging in eye contact and smiling at their caregivers as compared to children who began the program later. Although eye contact and smiling may seem insignificant, they are actually huge milestones on the path towards developing strong communication skills, especially when the children in the group were so young.
While the data from the study published by the team at Holland Bloorview is encouraging and certainly lends weight to the argument that early intervention is crucial when it comes to treating autism, the benefits of the program reach far beyond the data. When Alex was initially diagnosed with autism as a 2-year-old, the doctors told his mother, Jenna, that he would likely be non-verbal for his entire life. Because of the success of the Social ABCs and the perseverance of both Alex and Jenna in the program, Alex is now a very verbal communicator.
Alex moved well beyond making eye contact and simple words to being able to articulate his thoughts and feelings in complete sentences. Jenna describes how hearing her son speak and move down the path towards becoming a verbal communicator was a huge gift to her. As a mother, she’d been concerned about Alex when he was diagnosed with autism. In addition to having concerns about his future, she also expressed how difficult it was to interact with her child but to never be able to hear his voice or hear what he was experiencing. When Alex began to talk, Jenna notes that just being able to hear him speak made her incredibly happy and gave her the opportunity to begin to know her son in a whole other way.
The Social ABCs program being developed and implemented by the team at Holland Bloorview in Toronto isn’t some kind of miracle drug. As in the case with Alex and Jenna, actually practicing the strategies for developing communication that the research team teaches can be a difficult and lengthy process. While the process isn’t easy, the results are obviously worth the hard work.
Early intervention is essential to the long-term success of people with autism, and as the results from Holland Bloorview’s recent study indicate, the earlier programs like the Social ABCs are implemented, the more drastically successful the results will be over time.